After many years of careful conversation, three Protestant churches decided to join to form the Uniting Church in Australia—44 years ago, on 22 June 1977. The rhetoric was “we are a movement, not a denomination”. They were heady days. The new church issued a Statement to the Nation. There was front page newspaper coverage of the opening service of the new church. There was great optimism about what the future held.
44 years down the track, the Uniting Church has developed a clear identity and carved out a distinctive place within Australian society. We have made mistakes, followed some unhelpful paths leading to dead ends, and not always provided good, transparent, informed decisions. But we are human, flawed, striving, hopeful. We press on.
As the Uniting Church, we have a distinctively open and unconstricted theology, faithful to our reformed and catholic heritage, but contextualised to the contemporary Australian situation. We celebrate multicultural and linguistic diversity and exhibit a warm acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people. Across the church there is a clear and strong commitment to social justice, advocating for refugees, working to effect better housing policies, arguing against the excessive gambling addiction in society, decriminalising drug usage, and other issues.
We have a consistent and thoroughgoing commitment to living sustainably, honouring the creation, and working with community organisations devoted to environmental care. We have an enduring covenant with the First Peoples of the land, an openness to ecumenical and interfaith engagements, and a strong commitment to mission in other countries that means working carefully with partner churches and supporting local initiatives.
In each of these areas, we have ideals, goals, visions, and we have dashed hopes, failed enterprises, inadequate realisations. Yet we press on.
We still talk with orthodox, catholic, conservative, evangelical and pentecostal siblings, but don’t feel constrained by their dogmas or traditions, or by what we perceive to be their restrictions and limitations. We seek to set out in fresh directions, following untested pathways, sailing into unchartered waters, knowing that this means pushing the envelope, risking being criticised or unfriended or worse. Sometimes the fresh initiatives work well, sometimes they fail spectacularly. But at least we try—and we press on.
It’s a good place to be! We are appreciated by so many people in society. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the comment, “If I went to church, it would be to a Uniting Church”. Well, it’s OK not to go to church, but it’s great that church folk can work with others in the community on projects of mutual interest, to the benefit of all. “Uniting for the Common Good” has been one of our catchcries in recent years. “Where the wild God is” is the current theme for our consideration—we go where God is already at work.
The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.
We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.
When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.
We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.
But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.
I In Ecumenical Relationship
When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.
Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.
Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.
We are an ecumenical church.
II In Covenant with First Peoples
A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.
In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.
We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.
III A Multicultural Church
In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.
The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.
Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.
Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.
We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.
IV All the people of God
The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.
Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.
We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.
We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.
V Women and Men
The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.
Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.
Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.
We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.
Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.
The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.
We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.
VII Professional Standards
Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.
Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.
Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.
We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.
VIII Open to explore difficult issues
Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.
In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.
Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.
In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.
We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.
IX Advocating for Justice
The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.
The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for JusticeCircle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.
A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.
We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.
X Environmental Sustainability
In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.
Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.
Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.
We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.
You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!
I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?
In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?
If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?
The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.
Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).
Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?
The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).
I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?
We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.
So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.
The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)
Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.
Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?
And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.
That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).
We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?
Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.
Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.
What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.
Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)
When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.
It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.
Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?
This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?
For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.
This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.
Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)
So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.
So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).
To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).
And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??
There has been a lot of media interest in the recent declaration by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, concerning the way that some dioceses, a number of ministers, and many, many people of faith are grappling with our changed understandings of gender and sexuality, and how that relates to Christian faith.
It is a complex matter, with many nuances, that deserve careful consideration, and compassionate reflection.
The words of the Sydney Diocese leader, however, cast the situation in a clear black-and-white manner, with the stinger of a sharp command to those with whom he (and many in his Diocese) disagree: “please leave”.
The full set of words from this part of his speech is instructive: “My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our Church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views – but do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us.”
So sayeth the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, the Rev. Dr Glenn Davies.
But there are a number of problems with what Dr Davies said.
The Archbishop distanced himself from “people who] wish to change the doctrine of our Church”. The first problem is, that doctrine is always changing. It was changing in the early decades of the church. It changed significantly in the various Reformations of the 16th century, under the leadership of Jan Huss, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and then the response of the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church.
It changed in 1540, when Henry VIII of England sanctioned the complete destruction of shrines to saints, and further in 1542, when Henry dissolved monasteries across the country—actions which changed doctrines and led to the formation of the very church in which Glenn Davies was ordained and then consecrated!
It changed when, during the Enlightenment, theologians and scholars applied principles of rational thinking to scriptural texts and faith concerns. It continues to change in the postmodern world, as new discoveries and insights lead Christian leaders to bring new questions to faith issues, and to formulate beliefs in ways that connect with and make sense within the changing world.
In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we recognise this when we recall the paragraph in our Basis of Union that affirms “the continuing witness and service”, not only of evangelists, prophets, and martyrs, but also of scholars; and which notes that as we engage with “literary, historical and scientific enquiry … [of] recent centuries”, we are able to develop “an informed faith” of relevance to the current times.
Doctrine is dynamic; it is always in a state of flux. Theology is transient; it is always developing. Church teaching is constantly evolving; it is never static.
Second, the Archbishop referred to “the plain teaching of Scripture”. The second problem, then is that scripture does not actually have a plain teaching. There are words, written in the Bible, which need to be interpreted, if they are to be understood and applied to contemporary life. There is no plain and simple teaching in these words; they are words which always need interpretation.
This interpretation starts with the choice of text. We do not have an “original version”; we have copies of copies, some complete, many fragmented. There are always options to consider–and we all rely on experts in this matter. Then comes the matter of language. Biblical texts were written in languages other than English. We English-speakers are reliant on the careful work of translators and scholars, seeking to render the phrases of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into contemporary English. There are already multiple interpretive decisions that have been made for us, in our English Bibles.
Then, interpretation needs to take into account the differences in culture that exist, between the patriarchal, honour-shame cultures of antiquity, and the current state of play within (in our case) contemporary Australian society. We can’t just assume that something from an ancient culture “makes sense” in our contemporary culture, let alone that it can be “directly applied” into our context. There are interpretive decisions to be made.
The process of interpretation also needs to bear in mind how the usage of particular words and ideas has changed over time. Awful, for instance, once had a very positive sense, “full full of awe or admiration”, whilst nice had an earlier sense of “silly, foolish”. Guy (from the historical British figure Guy Fawkes) had an earlier sense of a frightening figure, not the generalised reference to men that it has today, whilst meat in earlier centuries was a catch-all term referring to food in general. (And, most pertinent to the particular issue at hand, “gay” once had a very different point of reference in English!)
These kinds of shifts in usage are also found in terms that appear in the Bible, especially in translations from some centuries ago. We need to factor that in to our interpretation.
And then, reading and interpretation of the Bible involves application, discerning how and in what ways a biblical passage is relevant for us today. That means knowing what our situation is as well as what we hear in the biblical text, and connecting the two. It is not simple or straightforward.
That’s an unfair and unhelpfully polemical characterisation of what is a complex and nuanced matter—reading biblical passages about sexuality in contemporary society. The biblical texts about sexual relationships involving people of the same gender are not simple and self-evident prohibitions on such behaviour, and should not be read as such.
Third, the Archbishop—quite strikingly—has urged certain people to leave the Anglican Church. I believe that advocating that people leave one church to start another church is not a helpful activity. Anglicans, like other mainstream denominations, have a commitment to unity in the church. So, the third problem is a lack of commitment to the unity of the church.
That’s quite an amazing position for a leader in a denomination which affirms that it is, indeed, an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church—and which is universally recognised by other denominations as an integral part of that Church.
Each Sunday, in Anglican churches around Australia (and beyond), faithful people affirm, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s a line in the Nicene Creed. And those Anglicans are joined by many Roman Catholics, members of the many Orthodox churches, and quite a number of folk in the various Protestant churches, to say these words together on regular (even weekly) occasions. Across the denominations, there is a commitment to unity.
Not in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, however. The Archbishop’s invitation to those who see things differently from him to leave the church and form their own branch is fracturing the unity of the church even more by this narrow, sectarian dogmatism.
Archbishop Welby is promoting through the Anglican Communion a resource entitled Living Reconciliation, which “offers a vision of Church marked by honesty, truthfulness and love … [and] applies the teaching of the Gospel at precisely the point where we need it most today” (see http://living-reconciliation.org/thebook/).
Is the Archbishop of Sydney aware of just how contrary his words are, to the principles of reconciliation and the commitment to an honest, loving church that is being championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury?
Finally, the Archbishop of Sydney is quoted as imploring those with whom he disagrees: do not ruin the Anglican Church. The fourth problem I see is that exploring and developing ideas is not a process of ruination.
Rather, the exploration of ideas and the development of thought is a constructive process that offers a gift to the church at large: the gift of an ever-evolving, ever-refining articulation of beliefs in ways that resonate with life in the contemporary age. Questions, provocations, redefinitions, and developments in thinking and believing are wonderful gifts!
I wouldn’t characterise the process as one of causing ruin. Rather, I would celebrate it and affirm the importance of this process. The problem, it seems to me, is that if you really believe that you have The Truth, then you are impelled to convince others of that Truth. But if you believe you are called to Love others, then you will listen and learn.
Sadly, the Archbishop has demonstrated this stark difference: when we prioritise Truth, we inform, lecture, admonish, even berate; whereas when we prioritise Love, we enter into relationships, affirm, explore, nourish, question, rethink, and develop in community with each other. Quite a different ethos. Quite a different result.
Please Leave? No—Please Stay! To the people addressed by Dr Davies, I say: Please stay in the Christian church and help us to be faithful to the Gospel. Please stay in the Christian church and help us to change in ways that are positive and life-giving. Please stay and gift your distinctive contribution to the life of the church in your locality and beyond.
And to the Archbishop, if he really is committed to the process of leaving, I say: you please leave. Please leave behind homophobic fear and discriminatory rhetoric. Please leave behind your insistence on conformity to your particular dogmatic assertions. Please leave behind your criticisms of those who happen to be born different from you. That’s what I would like you to leave.
Concluding my exploration of reactionary conservatism throughout the 42 years of the Uniting Church. In part one, I looked at the formation of the church in 1977, and EMU (the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, later renamed to the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU). In part two, I considered the Reforming Alliance (RA) and the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), through to the present, with the formation of Propel.
VI. Conservative theology, the ACC, and CALD communities
From time to time, I hear the claim that goes something like, “lots of ethnic congregations disagree with the Uniting Church position on sexuality”. This is often applied to Pacific Island communities, referring to churches with their roots in Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and a number of other islands in Oceania. It also applies to some Korean-speaking congregations.
One simple reason for this is historical: when Western churches sent missionaries to the Pacific Islands, and to Korea, the people that they sent were inevitably filled with missional zeal, conservative pietism, and intense desire to convert the people amongst whom they were living and ministering. The type of Christian faith that they brought with them, that they taught and advocated, and that was adopted by the people of the islands where they were based, was from a particular cultural context, which was conservative, evangelical, and in many cases, pre-critical.
Thus, the churches that they planted and that grew up in Korea and the Pacific Islands held strongly to conservative, evangelical, and even fundamentalist perspective on faith. That has carried over into the churches in Australia from those various Islander and Korean communities. Indeed, in those very cultures, pre-missionary understandings were often quite different from what we now hear as being from those cultures.
The same kind of rhetoric has been applied to these CALD communities (CALD = culturally and linguistically diverse). The dominant theological stance is conservative. The claim is made, from time to time, that people from these communities are leaving the church. In droves, it is sometimes said. Once again, the rhetoric is over-reaching; the numbers are highly exaggerated; the tactics are based on inaccuracies fed by fear, fostering division.
And the theological positions of people within these various CALD communities can no longer be stereotyped as being all the same, all conservative, all anti-homosexuals, all believing that the Bible is inerrant. There is, now, actually a wide range of opinions, perspectives, and theologies amongst these CALD communities. They are as diverse as any other part of the church, with all shades of theological commitment reflected.
After many generations of life in Australia, it is clear that people within the various CALD communities, like people within mono-Anglo church groups, have grappled with biblical interpretation, have sensed how traditional culture might be critiqued, and have realised that life is filled with diversity. They have adopted the Uniting Church’s commitment to an informed faith. It is not just a black-and-white situation. And that is part of the wonderful diversity that can be found within the Uniting Church.
I am proud to have many colleagues in ministry from non-Anglo origins, who have negotiated the pathway of being a “hyphenated” personality, straddling the culture of their place of origin and the culture of the place they now live. They serve with faithfulness. They know how to critique their culture of origin, how to critique their culture of current living, and how to apply these insights to biblical interpretation, theological exposition, pastoral care, and missional engagement.
I have been a member of the last two Assemblies. In debates on the floor of both Assemblies, the wide spread of theological positions advocated by members of the various CALD communities has been clearly evident. There is a diversity of voices within CALD communities. Not everyone in those groups accepts and repeats the conservative rhetoric about the crisis in the church, the decline of numbers. Indeed, most CALD communities hold fast to the Uniting Church as their faith home. They are not leaving in droves.
I have talked about this with a number of people who have worked, in different Synods, with people from many of the CALD communities. They know the diversity. They know the resentment of those who adopt “divisive, splintering tactics”, at some National Conferences, and in the public arena. Some CALD leaders attempt to speak to a wider audience as if they are speaking for all members of their ethnic community, and indeed all cultural groups across the UCA. They do not, and I have been told that this has been made clear in many sessions of various National Conferences.
The recent foray into Tonga is a case in point, when some leaders of the ACC went to the General Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWC), to raise their concerns about the UCA, citing the 2018 decision about marriage, and to raise the possibility that there might be a breaking of relations with the UCA. The renegade UCA people in leadership in the ACC did not succeed in this task of fomenting dissension. The leaders of the FWC have issued a statement explicitly repudiating the claim that the relationship has broken.
See my post on this issue and the divisive tactics employed at
The current dominance in leadership, and in membership, of individuals from certain CALD communities, simply reflects the ineffective nature of their strategy in the church at large. It seems like cultural expectations are, in some situations, being used to sway adherence to a particular, narrow, theological dogma. I know of a number of locations where ACC leadership has explicitly sought to recruit whole CALD faith communities to their cause. That is a really sad way of operating.
However, more recent statements by the ACC have exposed its theology as exclusionary, wrath-driven and judgemental. In my mind, it would be good if these advocates of “orthodoxy” were to have a different narrative.
There is clearly a place for an articulate, thoughtful, informed theology which is both conservative and evangelical. I don’t dispute that. I have always valued such voices, in the scholars I have read, the students I have taught, and the colleagues with whom I work and interact. Good conservative theology makes a valuable contribution to the life of the church.
However, the way that the case has been argued by some conservative leaders, the rhetorical strategy of crying doom and gloom, or worse, in an attempt to reverse decisions, does not provide a constructive contribution to the church. And in recent times it has descended into ugly rhetoric (“the UCA is apostate”, for instance). That’s counterproductive.
I yearn to hear conservative church leaders speaking in a way that highlights the GOOD news, that offers the GRACE of God, that models the INCLUSION of the Gospel and invites people into an EXPLORATION of faith, as is evident in the New Testament texts. This is the positive model of leadership which does well for the whole church.
Too often over the years, conservative leaders—and especially, more recently, the leadership of the ACC—have spoken to highlight JUDGEMENT, offering FEAR as the motivation for seeking repentance, and modelling the EXCLUSIVE character of a holy huddle which is entirely convinced that it, and it alone, possesses THE TRUTH about God.
We need to move away, once and for all, from these ineffective and disrespectful strategies.
Continuing my explorations of reactionary conservatism throughout the 42 years of the Uniting Church. In part one, I looked at the formation of the church in 1977, and EMU (the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, later renamed to the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU).
In this part, we look at the Reforming Alliance (RA) and the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), through to the present, with the formation of Propel.
III. The Reforming Alliance, sexuality and leadership
Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) had become active in prosecuting the view that the Uniting Church did not have an adequate view of scripture and did not hold strongly enough to the classic understandings of faith from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
After some individuals who identified as same-gender attracted offered themselves for consideration as candidates for ordained ministry, the focus of the conservatives turned more intensely onto the matter of sexuality.
The Reforming Alliance was established in response to the 10th Assembly’s decision in 2003, not to make a statement opposing the ordination of people who are in a same-gender relationship. RA had fought against the reasoned articulation of “an informed faith” in relation to scripture and sexuality. It advocated a conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist, approach to scripture, which was the dominant paradigm in some denominations, but had never been the way that the UCA had approached biblical interpretation.
After the decision of the Assembly in 2003, there was a resurgence in rhetoric warning that the church would die, that this latest decision would mark the end of the Uniting Church. The rhetoric was steadily inflated. The strategy seemed to be to induce guilt about the future of the church, with the hope that this would result in an overturning of the decision. It did not. Some people left the UCA. Some congregations split. Ministry and Mission continued apace. The UCA continued on.
IV. The ACC and marriage of same-gender attracted people
Persistent debate has continued since that time, with conservative evangelical advocates across the Synods arguing against the agreed UCA position. There have been particularly strong groups in Qld and SA.
After the 11th Assembly in 2006, a special summit of the remnants of EMU and the relatively new Reforming Alliance established a new organisation, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) within the Uniting Church. The battle continued into the present time. The rhetoric continued, and intensified, as the obvious lack of impact in the strategy became more evident. The generation of guilt was magnified, but to no avail. The church has continued.
So, what we see today is playing out the four decades of the UCA where disenchanted conservative evangelical pietists have resisted the moves towards “an informed faith” which thinking Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians all saw as a key commitment within the Uniting Church. The ACC has been waging an ongoing battle against this position for 15 years, but the majority of the UCA has always been engaged with the processes of critical thinking and fresh words and deeds which the Basis of Union holds as a key value.
In recent years, the ACC has swerved even more to the hard right; it speaks in tones even harsher and unflinching, compared to RA and EMU. The extremes of the theological position of the ACC can be seen on their webpage at
The rhetoric of the ACC has become increasingly inflamed. Accusing the UCA Assembly of being “apostate” is excessive and ill-judged. Claiming that the ACC itself is “the true Assembly” is hyperbolic overreach. The ACC is becoming smaller and less effective. It has employed tactics which are nasty and ugly. Its leadership, and membership, are increasingly drawn from specific sections of the Pacific Island and Korean communities, not from the wider church. Other CALD leadership across the board differentiates itself very clearly from the ACC rhetoric and tactics.
The recent foray by ACC leadership into Tonga, to convince the Free Wesleyan. Church of Tonga to break off relationships with the UCA Assembly, is a case in point. Publicity shared by the ACC since that conference has been completely inaccurate, deliberately inflaming.
I will explore in more details the issues involved with CALD communities and conservative theology in a third part to this blog.
V. A new conservative voice: Propel
And now, there is a new movement within the Uniting Church: Propel. It describes itself as “a new national network of evangelical leaders, congregations and agencies in the Uniting Church in Australia” and promises that its members will “seek to be a positive renewal movement within, and for the life and mission of the church.”
Propel declares that it has been formed because of “the significant pastoral and mission disruptions experienced in many places leading up to and since the decisions of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church”, and affirms that it will offer leadership related to “the historic, orthodox faith and mission” of the church. (See https://www.propelnetwork.org.au/)
Propel is the latest manifestation of a minority conservative protest thread which has run through the life of the Uniting Church, all the way from the time of church union in 1977 (and before).
I think Propel wants to position itself differently from the ACC and its precursors. (And rightly so!) Propel claims that it wants to “positively network together for mutual encouragement and resourcing – prayerfully, strategically and passionately pursuing the great commission.” Those are fine sentiments, and if the movement is able to hold to these positives, that would be good.
I am not entirely convinced that this new movement within the Uniting Church is actually needed. What is to stop the aims of Propel being achieved within the current structures of the church? And the clear naming of the recent decision about marriage as an issue of differentiation, ignores the fact that the Assembly did not insist on any one minister or congregation holding to a particular view. The Assembly recognised the integrity of two different views, and affirmed each as equally valid within the Uniting Church.
However, one of the NSW leaders promoting Propel writes, “We will stand firm in the faith, stand aside from that which is not, and move forward in mission with limitless power and resources in the Holy Spirit.” The phrases “stand firm, stand aside” contain code words which have been used often throughout 2018, to indicate a stance of rejecting the decision of the 15th Assembly regarding marriage. They have been spoken and written often by ACC leaders and members over the last year. To differentiate from these extremists, surely other language needs to be used?
Propel looks to me like an attempt by more moderate conservatives to distance themselves from these ugly reactionary tactics. But it is still at odds with the fundamental convictions of the UCA. The Basis of Union affirms that we hold to an informed faith. It values critical and contextual engagement with scripture. It values the recent insights of science, literature, history, psychology, medicine, and other modern disciplines. The ACC runs far from all of these foundational affirmations of the UCA. They are fast running out of options for being faithful members of the Uniting Church.
And let’s hope that Propel does not catapult itself headlong into the same dead end.
“My anecdotal feedback from contact with ACC and other evangelical congregations is that at least 3000 people have left since the 15th Assembly. Sadly, many members have just drifted away in hundreds of congregations, one, two, three or four at a time, perhaps some not even noticed, or worried about by ministers and leaders.”
So writes a leader from the Assembly of Confessing Congregations in their latest magazine, ACCatalyst. It seems to me to be a massive overreach in rhetoric, an attempt to generate a feeling of guilt amongst the faithful across the Uniting Church. “Look what terrible things have resulted from your decision about marriage”, is the implied message. I don’t know how the figure of 3,000 has been calculated. Inflated overestimates, I reckon.
It is also an inaccurate representation of the current situation. Personally, I know of some people in the context where I currently minister who have been upset by the decision. They have all received follow-up from pastoral carers, or myself as minister. Some have left, others are “hanging loose”. I spoke just two weeks ago with one person who had left the UCA last year because of the decision about marriage. He and his family are happily attending a church, geographically more convenient and theologically more suited to their views. I suspect there are more such stories amongst those who have left the UCA.
I know also of a number of Congregations where people have decided to come along to the Uniting Church, to take part in worship and fellowship, to align themselves with this denomination, precisely BECAUSE the Assembly made the decision that it did! I would not say there are 3,000 such people—in fact, I have no idea how many such people there might be—but I do know that there are, most certainly, a number of such people, who have JOINED the UCA since last July!
In talking with colleagues, who have similar stories, overall, of some small number of departures, as well as some stories of people joining, my sense is that the impact on numbers in the UCA over the past 12 months is small. Very small. And for most of those, there is another church, another spiritual home, where they have been welcomed. So it is not as bad as the ACC leader makes out.
This kind of scaremongering rhetoric is familiar and well-worn. I seem to have heard something very similar after each “controversial” decision relating to sexuality that has been made within the Uniting Church. Each time a decision was made, after much care, thought, prayer, and discussion, the noises about people leaving the church in droves have been heard. Each time, it is claimed, the Uniting Church is about to divide and die. And each time, we know, the church goes on, continuing to gather for worship and fellowship, maintaining its faithful witness in society, and providing loving service to people in the community.
The thread of a disenchanted reactionary minority, puffing and panting with an increasingly excessive rhetoric about the imminent demise of the church, has run through the Uniting Church for four decades. And we are still here. And still strong. The experience of the most recent Synod meeting I attended in Sydney attests to this: There was a significant contingent of younger members; in fact, we were told that one third of the members at this Synod were attending for the first time. Not all of them were “young”—but this in itself testifies to a strong commitment to the church across the board.
Why is it that we have had this irritant reactionary stream throughout our 42-year history?
I. The formation of the Uniting Church in Australia
When the Presbyterian church decided not to adopt the “one in, all in” approach that the Methodist church was utilising, in the voting about church union, the foundation was laid. Less involvement in the new denomination from Presbyterians, with their valuing of critical thinking and academic resourcing of thoughtful preaching, meant that, in some places, there was a higher proportion of Methodists, with their emphasis more on personal piety and evangelical fervour, within the new Uniting Church.
Had the Methodist Church allowed for more conservative dissidents not to join—as the Presbyterian and much smaller Congregational Churches did—the conservative thread in UCA history would have been much smaller. And the new church could have developed an even stronger focus on contextual theology, actions for social justice, and moving into the post-Christendom era. But such was not the case.
There was, to be sure, noise back in the 1970s to the effect that the new church was a rearguard action against declining numbers. Most often this came from disenchanted conservatives, frustrated at the fledgling church’s failure to stand for an understanding of the Bible as the “inerrant, infallible Word of God”. The church was going to die, they maintained, because of this failure.
However, the new church refused to die. It has continued on throughout the ensuing four decades of the Uniting Church. It remains the third largest denomination (counting by the census numbers) in Australia. True, like all other mainstream denominations, overall numbers have been falling. There is nothing different about the Uniting Church in this regard. Yet the UCA continues apace.
In those years since 1977, we have seen, one after another, the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, which in the early 1980s was renamed to Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU); then in the early 2000s, the Reforming Alliance (RA); and, in more recent years, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC).
The family resemblance is very clear. Each of these organisations advocated for a regressive conservative position on matters of morality (largely, sexuality) and veered towards a flat, literalist reading of scripture. They each made lots of noise about these issues but made little or no headway in achieving their aims. And, over time, the reactionary rhetoric has become more defensive, more rabid, more overreaching.
II. EMU, the Bible, and women in ministry
The ACC and RA are the children of EMU. What was Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church started as Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, formed in South Australia out of a concern about the so-called “liberal” tendencies dominant in the Uniting Church. Over time, the SA group grew with branches formed in other Synods, and then a national organisation emerging.
In the early years of the church, various evangelical members and ministers had opposed the church’s commitment to equality and mutuality, specifically arguing against female ministers. In my first parish, for instance, in 1981-1983, I worked hard with parishioners and members of other nearby UCA congregations who held to that view and argued that the UCA was doing the wrong thing by ordaining women.
I was a member of a Synod working group later in the 1980s that produced resources addressing the issue of mutuality in ministry, and the ordination of women, in direct response to evangelical members pushing the counter position. I know that women in ministry in the UCA continued to experience discrimination and marginalisation into the 21st century.
EMU was strongly focused on the issue of biblical authority. (This stance has been used to undergird the claim that the Bible does not support the ordination of women). The doctrinal statement crafted by EMU had strong resonances with the general conservative evangelical assertion that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, even though the founding documents of the UCA had explicitly not included such terminology.
As is clear in its founding document, the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church was formed with a commitment to the mutuality of men and women in ministry; indeed, all three denominations had already ordained women in the years prior to church union. Dr Julia Pitman has traced the long history of ordaining women in the Congregational Church—since 1927, in fact! — see https://www.insights.uca.org.au/reviews/read-this/small-church-big-step-for-women
I clearly recall rhetoric from the 1980s to the effect that ordaining women would see other churches stop talking to us and the life of the Uniting Church would shrivel. Those churches continued to talk to us, and the Uniting Church continued on unabated.
I remember being a member of a Presbytery which had one curmudgeonly old member who regularly voted NO whenever anything to do with women in ministry was considered. He should not have been allowed to do this, as it was inconsistent with UCA policy. Fortunately, his ilk has all but died out, at least amongst clergy and lay leadership.
(… to be continued)
For online articles which reflect on the creation of the UCA and its core commitments over the years, see:
The lectionary for this Sunday contains a very familiar passage in the Gospel reading. It is the short version, recorded by Luke, of the prayer we name as The Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father in heaven: hallowed be your name; holy be your name, sanctified and special, set apart and sacred. So we pray, each Sunday, or perhaps even each day of the week.
The Lord’s Prayer. The prayer, given to us by Jesus, recited by followers of Jesus through the ages, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Pentecostal, or Quaker. These are words that we all can say, that we all do pray, words that we all hope for, that we all believe in.
In this prayer, we address God as holy and sanctified, and we express our deepest hopes: may your kingdom come, may your will be done; and then, we make three requests: give us bread for the day, forgive us our sins, and deliver us from evil; before we close by affirming that this God is, indeed, the one to whom the kingdom, the power and the glory belong, closing our prayer with words which echo the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, some three millennia ago.
It seems to me that a central claim is made in the second of those two hopes that we pray each and every time we offer The Lord’s Prayer: your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
This phrase articulates a hope which is at the heart of our faith: a desire that life on earth, in the here and now, will fully reflect what we envisage and anticipate that life in heaven, life after death, life beyond the immediate, will be like.
In a sense, your will be done is simply a repetition of the first hope in this prayer:
your kingdom come. The kingdom is at the heart of the message of Jesus; the hope for God’s sovereign rule, as it is in the heavenly realm, where lambs lie down with lions, where peace will reign supreme, where justice marks everything that is done; the hope that this kingdom becomes a reality here and now, in our time and in our place, here on earth. Where the kingdom is, there God’s will is done.
So this is not a prayer that is oriented to an imagined future. It is not a prayer about a time and place beyond us. It is not a prayer about being saved in order to enter into heaven; it is a prayer that is focussed on what is needed in daily life to ensure that the signs of the kingdom are manifest in our midst, to ensure that the will of God is done in our lives.
When we pray, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we cry out for justice to be done, for the way of God to be a reality for all people. In my mind, a key saying of Jesus is this:Seek first and foremost the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness. That’s a clear statement of the need to place justice, righteousness, ethical living, obedience to the call of the Gospel, at the heart of everything that we do in our daily lives.
That’s what righteousness is: a quality of living that comes from the very heart of God and is communicated to people of faith, a quality of living that expresses the Gospel in words and deeds, in attitudes and actions.
When we pray, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we affirm our hope for creation, we yearn for the flourishing of every human life on the planet. Paul writes to the Romans, informing them that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and in his second letter to the Corinthians, he offers the vision of what will result from that labouring: a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
In this vision, Paul articulates his deepest hope, not only for the promised future, but even now, for the present. The groaning in labour will result, Paul is sure, in a transformed world, a transformed community, a new society even here and now in our midst.
When we pray, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we are praying that “the renewal and reconciliation of all creation” will be a reality in our lives, our families, our community, our nation. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. That’s how the passage from 2 Corinthians continues.
This is about what is happening now, around us, in our midst. So Paul continues: So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. The ministry of reconciliation is central to our task. Reconciliation, here and now, within our community.
That verse, 2 Cor 5:19, is an important verse as it is the only biblical verse explicitly quoted, and referenced, in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. It is the shortest form of the charter for UCA people!
When we pray, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we express our hope that caring compassion will mark all that the followers of Jesus do. Jesus looked on him with compassion, or a similar kind of phrase, we find eight times in stories across three of our Gospels. Jesus looked at the crowd and had compassion on them.
An attitude of compassion, of sharing in the delights and sorrows of people we encounter, is central to who we are, as followers of Jesus. These stories are told, to provide us with models of the way that we are to relate to others in this life.
When we pray, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we affirm our belief that hospitality and welcome are at the heart of the Gospel and are central to our discipleship. There are many scenes in the Gospels where Jesus sits at table, invited to share in a meal with his hosts, engaging in table talk about matters of importance.
Indeed, one of the reasons that I really like the Gospel of Luke, which was the focus of my doctoral research and writing, is that this is the Gospel where we most often find Jesus, reclining at table, sharing a meal: in the house of a Pharisee, in the house of a tax collector, in the upper room with his closest followers, on the road to Emmaus, and again in the room in Jerusalem after his resurrection. Sharing with others at table can be a rich and full expression of the hospitality of the Gospel.
When we pray, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven, we hope for abundant grace and liberating hope. Paul, on trial, in the later chapters of Acts,
persistently affirms that he is being tried because of his hope. Now I stand here on trial on account of my hope, he affirms as he stands in Caesarea before Agrippa and Bernice, my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night.
And that hope is something that he worked diligently and persistently to see coming to reality, in the new communities of faith that he established, nurtured, and encouraged, in his years as apostle to the Gentiles.
So there are multiple examples in scripture, of the ways that people of faith are praying, hoping, and working to make that prayer become a reality in our own time: your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Synod this year was a rich experience of being the church. In the church, we are young and old, and at every point in between. In the church, we are black, brown, and white; we have round eyes and almond eyes, curly black hair and shiny bald pates, flowing blonde hair and cropped short hair.
Around 15 people from the Canberra Region Presbytery attended the three days of Synod this year, in grounds of one of the Uniting Church schools, Knox Grammar, in Wahroonga. We were part of over 300 people who participated in the meeting.
During Synod, we worshipped. Each day began with worship, supported by an amazingly-gifted group of musicians, filled with prayers and songs and scripture and silence. Each day ended with worship, with an act of reflection based on doing, not just listening.
At regular points, we were invited to pause, reflect, share, or pray about what we had been considering. In one session, we prepared for prayer by writing words of gratitude on a piece of paper, folding it into the shape of a plane; and then we prayed by sending the plane shooting through the air to the accompaniment of a resounding AMEN!
During Synod, we listened. Principal Peter Walker led three studies on scripture, drawing from the letters of Paul as well as medieval and reformed church leaders, focussing us on the Christ who is the unifying centre of our diversity. Pastor Jon Owen spoke of working on the ground with people, in inner city Melbourne and now, in his current role with Wayside Chapel in Sydney.
And we listened some more. Karina Kreminski inspired us to consider “what in the world is God up to?” in our neighbourhood. And Josh Gilbert, a young indigenous farming man, spoke with passion and commitment about how it is possible to have an impact, to make the changes, that will enable us to reduce our carbon footprint and move towards a healthier environment for future generations.
During Synod, we deliberated. Each day we listened to proposals, deliberated about clauses, discussed action plans, explored and debated and applauded and sighed and waved cards, making decisions about matters of significance within the church and across our society. This is the business component of Synod, and it is always important to give adequate time to prayerful consideration and thoughtful discussion of the array of proposals presented to the Synod.
In two sessions, we met in smaller Discernment Groups of about ten people, to give focussed attention to one or two specific matters each day. Feedback from each group is then collated and fed back, the next day, to the Synod meeting in,plenary session. This is an important part of the way that the Uniting Church attends to business in its councils. Each person’s view is important, and Discernment Groups provide an opportunity for everyone, even the shyest person, to contribute to the making of policy.
One thing that the Uniting Church does well, is advocate. On the first day, we spent a productive time exploring a comprehensive report on what is being done, and considering what might be done, to advocate for the needs and of particular groups in our society. The Uniting Church has been the lead body in seeking fair treatment in relation to illicit drug usage, and very active in the Give Hope campaignfor Asylum Seekers and Refugees.
The Uniting Church has been involved in the broad community movement to seek better arrangements for Affordable Housingin Sydney, and relentless in pursuing responsible living within our environment and climate change advocacy. There has also been involvement in policy development relating to domestic and family violence, as well as the scourge of poker machine gambling. We were asked to consider what other issues required attention.
In one session, a large group of younger members of the Synod gathered on the stage, along with the Uniting Earth Advocates and the Uniting Director of Mission, Communities and Social Impact. They made a compelling presentation which convinced the Synod to adopt a Climate Change Strategy Plan. This has multiple elements, each of which needs significant and sustained buy-in from all of us across the Synod.
We adopted another proposal which urges the people across the Synod to Focus on Growth in a wide variety of ways: growth in discipleship and growth in relationships, as well as growth in numbers and in impacts. This is to be a priority for Congregations and Presbyteries in the coming years.
We approved a Renewed Vision for Formation, to engage people across the church in forming leaders in local contexts, discerning those gifted for ministry, and providing deeper Formation all pathways for those candidating for a specified ministry within the church.
And we enthusiastically supported a set of proposals, shaped around the theme of NAIDOC Week 2019 (Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty) to encourage people across the church to become better aware of how to relate to First Peoples and to advocate with our governments for treaties to be established with First Peoples nations.
During Synod, we learnt and rejoiced. There were evening events outside the ‘business sessions” during Synod: the screening of the powerful documentary ‘Half a Million Steps’, highlighting the plight of people struggling to access drug treatment as part of the Uniting-led Fair Treatment campaign; and a Saturday night festive Revivify Worship Event with music from various cultures and a keynote address from Jon Owen.
During Synod, we made a bunch of regular administrative decisions. People were elected to vacancies on each of the four Synod Boards, as well as a new group of twelve people to serve as members of the Standing Committee of the Synod until the next meeting in 2020.
In a most unusual (but understandable) move, Synod decided to extend the term of the Moderator, Rev. Simon Hansford, by another three years. With this extension, the Moderator’s term will now finish in 2023. The combination of significant turnover of senior leadership within the Synod, and changing expectations in society, were the motivators for this decision.
Members of Synod are drawn from all fourteen presbyteries across NSW and the ACT, as well as from the Congress of First Peoples. Not every congregation has a person present at Synod—some have multiple members present. There is always an equal number of ordained and lay people attending, and CALD groups were particularly in evidence throughout the meeting—Korean, Tongan, Fijian, Samoan, Kiribati, and no doubt a number of other ethnicities. It was great to see the substantial number of younger delegates present. Almost one third of the membership was attending their first Synod meeting. We well depicted the diversity of people of faith in our contemporary church.
The meeting ended with a final worship service, featuring lively music, moving prayers, and thoughtful reflection on the three days of this gathering.
Synod meetings always serve an important personal function as well. After a couple of years interstate for Elizabeth and myself, this meeting offered us both opportunities to catch up with friends and colleagues from many different locations, as well as to meet new people and find out about the challenges and opportunities facing these folk. Those opportunities were greatly appreciated. It also offered opportunity to network in strategic ways about specific matters in our current placements. So that made attending the Synod a most worthwhile, enjoyable, and productive experience.
Recent posts from the warriors of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations suggest that they have been hard at work in Tonga, lobbying support for their retrograde sectarian minority opinion. The matter revolves around the decision of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. The posts emanated from the Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, meeting in session over the past week.
A proposal went to the Conference, “That the conference of the FWC of Tonga suspend its formal relationship with the Assembly of the Uniting Church Australia until such a time as she repents of her apostate decision to approve its secular doctrine on diversity and same-gender marriage.” It was posted with the implication that this was adopted by the FWC. I don’t believe that it was.
In fact, the General Secretary of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has issued a statement strongly affirming the relationships that the FWC has with the Uniting Church in Australia. Dr Tevita Koloa’ia Havea has said that “There is no change to the relationship between the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and the Uniting Church in Australia.”
The statement continues, quite pointedly, “Please disregard the rumours, regarding the termination of the relationship between our General Conferences and the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.”
Meanwhile, the Uniting Church website reports that the President and General Secretary of the Assembly have issued a statement celebrating the UCA’s ongoing relationship with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.
“The Uniting Church in Australia and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga have a partnership that is strong, and grounded in our shared life in Christ, the honouring of and respect for our expressions of ministry and mission and our proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. The formal relationship between the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga remains strong. May God bless our churches with wisdom, grace and peace as we seek to serve our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ with joy and love.”
The statement was issued over the names of Dr Deidre Palmer, President, and Ms. Colleen Geyer, General Secretary of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.
There can be no doubt that the tactics of the sectarians in the ACC are retrograde, divisive, and disturbing. Far from affirming “the faith and unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” (as the UCA Basis of Union declares), the ACC has acted to divide the unity of the church, challenge the commitment to holiness manifested in lives working for justice, splinter connections across worldwide church through agitations with a partner church outside of the regular lines of communication and fellowship, and turn away from the church’s commitment to “the discipline of interpreting [the apostolic] teaching in a later age.
That is a poor witness, acting in ways that were clearly not envisaged in the faithful work undertaken to form, and then strengthen, the Uniting Church, over many decades. The theme of the last Assembly was “abundant grace, liberating hope”. It would be good to see some grace and hope emanating from the ACC …….